Lonsdale House should be saved
Last week, the State Minister for Planning Justin Madden, announced that planning approval had been given to the company redeveloping Myer’s city store, for the demolition of Lonsdale House on the corner of Lonsdale Street and Caledonian Lane.
The art deco building, which was was constructed in 1934 from two pre-existing Victorian-era warehouses, is notable for its streamlined moderne style and distinctive tower. Whilst it is in reasonable condition externally, it is believed to be in a poor state internally as it has been disused for a considerable amount of time. With recent publicity surrounding its possible demolition, graffiti vandals have entered and defaced much of the glass on the front.
Lonsdale House is part of a series of adjoining buildings which form the overall Myer Lonsdale Street store that is currently under redevelopment as reported previously on The Grapevine.
Colonial Global Asset Management is managing the redevelopment, and plan to convert most of the building to a new shopping centre, to be called “The Emporium”. The Age have published pictures of some of the proposed changes, although these are different plans to those submitted a few years ago when the idea of demolishing Lonsdale House was first mooted.
In response to that initial proposal to demolish Lonsdale House, the Art Deco and Modernism Society nominated the building for protection on the Victorian Heritage Register in January 2008. The Heritage Council refused to list the building, although it was initially believed that the building had some nominal protection under the City of Melbourne’s “Post Office Precinct” heritage overlay. In their assessment document, the Heritage Council noted that the building had “architectural and historical significance at the local level” but denied it was of “State significance”. On account of the size of the project, the City of Melbourne lost jurisdiction over the matter and so the decision fell into the hands of the state’s Planning Minister.
Colonial Global Asset Management asked the minister to approve the building’s demolition so they could widen Caledonian Lane to facilitate the access of delivery trucks for their Emporium redevelopment.
The Premier of Victoria, John Brumby, had previously stated his intention to take some planning decisions away from municipal councils and have them fast-tracked, using the current global economic crisis as justification. I won’t delve into the merits of this somewhat flawed argument, but I will state my view that excluding the public from planning decisions is somewhat undemocratic and rather Kennettesque. In any case, the Minister for Planning seemed to be convinced by the developers arguments and approved the demolition.
But what of Lonsdale House itself?
Despite the impassioned protests of some commentators, I don‘t believe that Lonsdale House is the best (or even an especially impressive) example of art deco or moderne architecture in Melbourne, let alone Victoria. Sure, the little tower on the roof is unique, but the rest of the building is quite mundane when compared to its stylistic contemporaries such as Mitchell House or the McPherson’s Building or even the beautiful Yule House. So from an architectural perspective, I broadly agree with the position of the Victorian Heritage Council that the building isn’t of “state significance”.
That said, sometimes one needs to step back (metaphorically and literally) from a problem and look at the bigger picture. And when I do this, I come to the firm conclusion that Lonsdale House should be spared.
Lonsdale House is uninspiring, but it forms part of an unbroken series of late-19th and early-20th century buildings that starts with the former bank building on Swanston Street (now a McDonald’s restaurant) and finishes at the western side of the massive Myer Emporium building near Elizabeth Street. Together, these form a complete streetscape, the likes of which is difficult to find in other parts of the city, where individual modern buildings have broken the unity. This repeating of history would become a reality if Lonsdale House is demolished, because it sits right near the centre of what I consider to be a most worthy streetscape.
Up until now, it would be fair to say that most Melburnians would be unlikely to have even noticed these buildings, which have all been painted beige for years under the stewardship of Myer. However, the pending redevelopment of the Myer store offers an opportunity to have these façades restored and the streetscape significantly enhanced.
It saddens me that the Minister feels that the excuse of job creation in an economic downturn is sufficient justification to sideline the heritage values of our city. His decision is even more surprising when his own parliamentary profile states that he has a personal interest in “20th century architecture” and is a member of the aforementioned Art Deco and Modernism Society!
It also saddens me that there is a proposal to replace Lonsdale House with a building which is as stylistically divorced from its surrounds as could be imagined. Finally, I feel that the apparent “need” to widen the laneway as justification for destroying Lonsdale House is a very flimsy excuse indeed from and overall planning perspective. I am sure there is sufficient access in Little Bourke Streets for such purposes. After all, that was the justification in building the “Little Streets” in the first place, wasn’t it?
If Lonsdale House is pulled down, I will miss its presence and the very streetscape it is an integral part of.
Let’s hope for a last minute reprieve.